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Study Like an Athlete: What Rock Climbing Taught Me about the GRE

Manhattan Prep GRE Blog - Study Like an Athlete: What Rock Climbing Taught Me about the GRE by Tom Anderson

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I’ve written before about how it’s healthy to think of GRE study more like an athletic event you’re preparing for and less like run-of-the-mill studying. If you study for the GRE by memorizing formulas and glancing at written explanations, you’ll likely get very little out of your study.

As a student with some pretty terrible study habits, I first attempted the GRE in the same way I’d always studied. I didn’t do that well. When I prepared to take it a second time, I tapped into my experiences an an athlete and used them as a model for my study. To my happy surprise, I did much better.

I would encourage you to think about GRE prep more like an exercise routine than a typical study session. In this entry, I’ll share a few insights about GRE study from the world of rock climbing. I am by no means an expert rock climber, but I’ve gone from embarrassingly bad to relatively competent in the couple of years I’ve been climbing. Surprisingly enough, I’ve found that climbing has taught me a lot about prepping for the GRE.

You’re Going to Fall

When you decide you’re going to learn how to climb, you have to accept something: you’re going to fall. A lot. In a sport that is fun because it’s challenging, failure is a normal part of the game. Some failures are elegant, and others are really awkward. One way or another, embracing wrongness is an important step toward becoming an expert.

I’ve made mistakes on more GRE problems than I can count. And whenever I do make a mistake, I’ll admit, my first impulse is to sweep it someplace dark and dusty where no one will see it again.

Over the course of my GRE study, that impulse has gradually changed. I started getting more comfortable with being wrong. Unlike in one’s personal life or career where mistakes can be embarrassing and harmful, mistakes on standardized tests are totally benign. Nothing bad happens to you when you forget a vocabulary word or fail to carry a negative sign. In your GRE study, embrace your wrongness and listen for whatever it has to teach you. Start by making an error log.

Repeat the Hard Stuff, Over and Over

When a climber completes a hard route for the first time, it’s often pretty sloppy. Fingers slip around awkwardly on a little hold. Toes go flying off the wall. But somehow, miraculously, the climber reaches the top. At that point, they might be tempted to check it off the list and then move on to another climb. Not so fast. Good climbers do repeats. They might do this 3 or 4 or even 10 times before they move on to something else.

I frequently see my GRE students make a similar study mistake. Rather than go back and re-solve problems that gave them trouble, they just try finish each chapter in their books. Even worse, they spend their time reading explanations of how to solve the problems rather than actually going back and doing them again.

Even if you theoretically understand how to do a problem, you really have to go through the motions—and do it a few times—before you master a problem. A good rule of thumb: do every missed problem a second time, 4 days after your first try. Do this problem a minimum of four times before you check it off your list.

Consider keeping a folder full of problem screenshots. You can pull them straight from your CAT exams and from the e-book versions of the Strategy Guides. If you keep your target problems in a special place and come back to them routinely, you’ll improve so much faster than you would if you just moved on.

Make It Look Easy

If you ever watch really good rock climbers in action, you’ll notice something curious: they make it look incredibly easy. I’m often inspired enough by this sight that I’ll take a crack at the same route, only to collapse on the floor, unable to get off the ground.

Sometimes it may feel like “expert test takers” do the same thing. They have such an easy time taking a test like the GRE that it appears as if they put no effort into it at all. While it might be tempting to write it off as “being a good test taker,” what we’re really seeing is the product of lots of deliberate practice. Whether whizzing through standardized tests or looking like Spiderman on a rock wall, experts master their respective fields in remarkably similar ways: they repeatedly come back to their particular weaknesses—anything that feels slow or funky—and work on them until they feel easy.

In the world of the GRE, this means you shouldn’t just be repeating the problems you got incorrect. The most important ones to work on are the ones you almost got wrong. If you can get a problem correct in an ugly way, you can probably learn to get it correct in a faster, smoother, and easier way.

If fraction mechanics like the ones in the back of the Fractions, Decimals, and Percents Strategy Guide usually take you 30 seconds to complete, time yourself until you can get them down to 10 seconds apiece. Not only will this make all sorts of related problems feel easier to you, but you’ll save a lot of time as well. 20 seconds saved here and there throughout the test adds up to a few problems you would have never been able to attempt if you were moving slowly.

And the really cool part about this? Research seems to indicate that stuff really does become easy when you practice it enough. Compared to novices, expert chess players and problem solvers show less activity in their brains while they work.

Don’t Look Down

After climbing for a few years, I somehow convinced my 58-year-old mother—a woman with a healthy fear of heights and a strong desire to stay alive—to come out and do a day of rock climbing with me. To my utter astonishment, she not only tried it, but shot up the rock wall with ease. Then, about 60 feet off of the ground, she turned around to wave at those of us back on the ground. In a flash of terror, she realized where she was, panicked, and demanded to be brought down immediately.

Later, after she was down safely on the ground, she remarked at how carefree she felt while climbing and how suddenly the fear took hold of her when she realized where she was. Most of us have had some kind of experience like this: as long as your attention is on the move in front of you, you’re fine. The second you start thinking about the big picture, panic sets in.

The same thing can definitely occur during a GRE exam. It is a challenging exam that is tied in to your grad school future—a fact that has a way of inducing tunnel vision and sweaty palms. Halfway through your test, you’ll be solving a problem about something random, say, circles. As long as you’re thinking about circles, you’ll be fine. But you may find yourself plagued with less helpful thoughts:

“There are only 10 minutes left in this section.”
“What if I’m only in an easy section right now? I can’t be doing well.”
“What will my friends think when I tell them my score?”

First, know that a little bit of stress can actually be healthy—it fuels you to do better than you would if you didn’t care so much about the test. If the stress becomes too great, though, you can center yourself by taking a deep breath and taking a moment to be mindful of the present. Give yourself a brief internal mantra: “I’m getting this one right.” In other words, you don’t care about the problem you just saw or the problem you’re about to see. You’re focused only on the one right in front of you.

Keep on Climbing Toward Those 170s

There are numerous analogies for study—from running a marathon to preparing for a piano recital. One way or another, think of it more like a performance you’re preparing for and less like a study checklist to move through. And whatever your metaphor of choice, remember these few big ideas from the world of rock climbing:

  1. Do old problems over again. Try any missed problem a second time 4 days later.
  2. Repeat old problems until you can do them without all the missteps along the way.
  3. Work on mechanics until they feel easy. You’ll want all the brain power and time you can get for the hard problems.
  4. Keep focused on the problem at hand. If your mind wanders or anxiety overtakes you, center yourself with the mantra “I’m getting this one right.”

Happy studying! 📝


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tom-andersonTom Anderson is a Manhattan Prep instructor based in New York, NY. He has a B.A. in English and a master’s degree in education. Tom has long possessed an understanding of the power of standardized tests in propelling one’s education and career, and he hopes he can help his students see through the intimidating veneer of the GRE. Check out Tom’s upcoming GRE courses here.

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